Category Archives: Playful cities

How magic happens in public spaces

It’s a sunny winter’s day back in July of this year. I’m on a family road trip through Victoria and we’ve stopped at a roadside rest area off the Princes Highway between Colac and Melbourne. My one year old niece needs a feed, so my partner and I get out of the ‘people mover’ to stretch our legs while we wait.

There’s a picnic table, a toilet block, and a big wide empty expanse of bitumen carpark. Our gang are the only one’s here. We wander a little, we explore, and then I ask my partner to dance.

We waltz in the carpark. We practice some swing dancing turns on the bitumen. We get the timing wrong. We laugh. We try a few lifts. We’re at a rest area, in the middle of no place much, and yet there’s magic in the air…

Then my sister calls out that they’re ready to go and we’re on the road again.

As we continue on our journey, I reflect on how magic happens in public spaces*. How a roadside rest stop becomes a stage set for dancing and a place where lasting memories are made.

Three ingredients I noticed were present in this instance:

1. Quality design details 

Whoever is in charge of roadside amenities on this patch of highway in Victoria is doing a good job. The picnic table and toilet block were made of interesting and quality materials and were attractive and inviting (no photos to share unfortunately!). Whilst I’d be the first person to tell you that design is definitely not the ‘be all and end all’ of making places great, I agree with Project for Public Spaces when they say: “good details tantalise – they send a signal that someone took the time and energy to design amenities that welcome, intrigue, or help”. Beauty inspires beautiful acts.

2. Imaginative connections

In October 2012 I visited the thought-provoking Postcards for Perth exhibition by Robyn Creagh, PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer in the School of Built Environment at Curtin University. Robyn’s work explored how personal memories of place shape our urban experience. She invited us to notice how the imaginative connections we make between places we’ve experienced in the past and those we’re enjoying today can actually shape our experience of our current places.

At the roadside rest area I found my imagination transporting me back to another time and place. The physical qualities of the location and the experience of being on a roadtrip reminded me of another roadside stop I made on a trip across the Nullabor with friends in my early 20s. That time my friends and I stopped by the side of the road and held a brief but fun ‘Nullabor Disco’ – filming our disco dancing moves to the soundtrack of Disco Inferno. The imaginative connection I made with that past experience of a ‘similar’ place helped to get my feet dancing again over 10 years later!

3. A playful attitude to public space

We can choose how we engage with and make use of our public spaces.

PPS talk about “the tendency of people (particularly in the developed world) to see regulations where they don’t exist. After decades of society turning its back on public life in favor of the private realm of home, office, and car, a lot of people now feel that they need permission to use public spaces the way they’d like to“. One of my roles as a place maker is to help people to ‘see’ public spaces differently, to expand their ideas about what they can use public spaces for and what the potential of our shared spaces can be. It’s my job to disrupt and inspire.

The playful attitude I brought with me into the space of the roadside rest area helped me to see an empty car park as a dance floor.

Principle 9 for Making a Great Place - Make It Enchanting

Principle 9 for Making a Great Place – Make It Enchanting

Which public places have you experienced moments of (perhaps unexpected) magic in?
What ingredients do you think are important for making magic in public places?
I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Magic‘ seems to me to be the best word to sum up those moments when our senses are heightened, we feel very alive, connected and open, and experience a sense of wonder in the midst of the everyday.

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Brainstorming about playful cities

The idea and experience of play is a thread that weaves itself through my life and my work. This morning I got thinking about playful cities and allowed myself a quick brainstorm about the possible meanings and actions that could flow from this idea, particularly in relation to my work with Creative Maylands, youth planning for local councils and place making projects. I thought I’d share what I came up with; perhaps there’s a thread in here somewhere that could connect with or inspire your own thinking and work.


Some questions to get you thinking… I’d love to hear your responses:

What would a ‘playful city’ look like to you?
How can the notion of play inform your work with communities or places or something else?
What are the questions you think I/we should be asking about playful cities?